Michelle Obama's New Mission
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Michelle Obama's New Mission

Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign -- getting kids to exercise and eat healthier -- has become the cause closest to her heart. In an exclusive interview, LHJ editor-in-chief Sally Lee chatted with the First Lady about her fight against childhood obesity, what she's teaching her own daughters, how she keeps fit (and gets those biceps!), and the one vegetable she refuses to eat.

SALLY LEE: What made you choose Let's Move as your first major initiative?

MICHELLE OBAMA: It's personal for me. As a working mom [in Chicago] I lived through what a lot of working families are dealing with: You have your job. Your kids are going in 50 million different directions. You're trying to fix dinner, doing things on the go. You're [eating out], because you don't have time to cook. I saw the toll it was taking not just on how my family looked but on how we felt. But by making a few minor changes, I saw some pretty significant [results]. It made me think, do most families understand that these small changes can make a difference? I wanted to create a message that gave parents better information.

SL: Such as?

MO: How do we make eating a focus of children's lives? How do we make vegetables and fruits fun? I wanted to open up a dialogue about healthy eating that wasn't accusatory, that didn't place blame, because that doesn't make parents feel better. Parents are doing the best they can. . . . Also, physical activity is key. It's not just what kids are eating, it's how they're moving.

SL: My kids come home from school and they have so much homework, and piano lessons, and everything else. How can parents help kids find extra time for exercise?

MO: We have to think about it not as another activity but as play. I tell my girls it's as simple as running up and down the hallway with the dog. Think of creating [opportunities] for kids to play. They can play inside just as easily as they can play outside. In some communities playing outside isn't safe. It's difficult to look at a mother and say, ?You should let your kid ride a bike,? when there's gunfire going on. A lot of it is turning off the TV, creating more boundaries around computer time.

Talking to the Girls

SL: Do you limit your girls' screen time?

MO: We do. My girls can't watch TV during the school week. And generally they have limited time over the weekend. During the school week they can only use the computer if it's for schoolwork.

SL: How do you talk to your daughters about nutrition? In what way are you a role model for them? From my research for this interview I got the distinct impression you like pie.

MO: Right, right. And French fries! One of the reasons I talk about pie and burgers is because if you tell people they can never have the stuff they love, they'll shut down. What is life without the things you love to eat? For me it's pie. So what I tell my girls is, "treats are special." They're not something you have every day. When we were growing up we never had dessert every night. You didn't have a snack when you wanted one -- probably because the economy was so tough. A bag of potato chips had to last for a week. Those limitations, and the fact that families cooked more at home, created the balance that now is being lost because times have changed and people are busier. Telling a busy mother she's got to prepare a home-cooked meal every night is gonna shut her down. I couldn't do it.

SL: So what kind of strategies can you offer parents who can't make regular family dinners?

MO: Some of it is changing priorities and making the time [to sit down together]. It may not be every night. When we were younger, Sunday was one of those nights we sat around the dinner table together. . . . If you think in terms of that being important, then people will find more time.

All on the Same Page

MO: The overall message of Let's Move is balance. Do we have a vegetable on the plate? Have we incorporated fruit? What's the portion size? Portion sizes have gotten out of control. With my kids, before they get a second helping I'll ask them, "Are you really hungry? Or is this something you want to do because you're bored?"

SL: Your mother lives with you. Is she in sync with your healthy-eating rules?

MO: Mommy swears I am much more strict than she was. Yeah, she tends to spoil the girls a little bit more. But she believes in not sending mixed messages. That's something families have to think about: making sure both parents are on the same page. If one adult is putting vegetables on the plate and the other's saying, "You don't have to eat them" -- it's difficult.

SL: Are you and President Obama on the same page? Or is one of you more lenient than the other?

MO: We're pretty consistent. But that requires that we spend time talking about our health goals for our kids. Before we set up activities for them, we usually sit down and think about what the girls are doing. Are they overloaded? What's missing? Even with his busy schedule, he's very involved in thinking through the girls' lives.

SL: What other healthy changes have you brought to the White House?

MO: Well, we hope that we've brought an appreciation for physical fitness. The President and I work out every day. And we encourage many of our staffers, particularly our senior staff, who are here day and night, to make time for exercise. I think the President serves as a good role model because as busy as he is, he exercises every day. It's a part of what keeps him going. You do get to a point where exercise becomes something that you need, like water. And we try to promote that.

Cheating the Routine

SL: You get up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to work out. Are there ever times when you say "Forget it!" and don't make it to the gym?

MO: Today! [Laughs] All of last weekend. I ate everything that was available. In fact, we had a take-out food-fest.

SL: Were you back in Chicago?

MO: We were back in Chicago and we had a day of having all our favorite stuff: deep-dish pizza, barbecue. So, yeah, there are absolutely times when you just don't feel like it. That's why the times that I do feel like it, I push myself.

SL: Does exercise help you deal with stress, too?

MO: Oh, definitely. And it makes you feel better about yourself. I always think, "Don't think about how you're feeling during the workout. Think about an hour and a half from now, how good you're gonna feel the rest of the day."

SL: It's difficult for mothers to talk to their kids -- especially daughters -- about weight issues. Is there any advice you can give parents about that?

MO: Well, I never talk about weight with my girls. I try not to even talk about my weight. Because you're right, it is a sensitive issue. My girls are preteens and they're seeing their bodies in a whole different way. We have conversations around health, food, and activity. I tell them sports are something I want them to engage in because it's good for them. It's good to practice teamwork, to understand what it means to suffer a loss, to win with grace. It has nothing to do with weight, it has everything to do with being a well-rounded person. Also, I have them do a sport that they like and a sport that I like. I want them to understand what it feels like to do something you don't like and to improve. Because in life you don't always get to do the things you want.

The Cleanse

SL: Don't you get pushback on that?

MO: Oh, yeah. Tennis was the sport I chose for them because you can play it for a lifetime. When they started, the racket was bigger than Sasha. She was frustrated because she couldn't hit the ball. Malia didn't understand why I was making them play it. But now they're starting to get better and they actually like it. And I'm like, "Mom was right!"

And they see me exercise. I'll say, "You see Mommy getting up every day. I do it because I have to stay healthy. If you want me to run around with you, I've got to be in shape."

Now, my kids are young, so we'll see if I've driven them crazy. But hopefully they'll grow up with a healthy sense of confidence about themselves. And in terms of weight -- those things work themselves out. Kids fluctuate so much at this age. They're bananas one minute and pears the next.

SL: Is there a healthy food that you just can't eat or the girls won't eat?

MO: There are tons of them.

SL: What's your worst nightmare?

MO: Beets. I am a believer that there is a beet gene. People who love beets love them and people who hate beets can't stand them. Neither the President nor I have the beet gene. And there are a lot of healthy things my kids don't like. But our rule is, you've got to finish your vegetables. And if somebody says, "I'm full," then it's like, "Okay. If you're full, you're done. But you have to finish your vegetables, and don't ask for dessert." Because if you're full, you're full. You can't be full just for the healthy stuff. That's the joke in our household. . . .

The truth is, some of the flavors in vegetables are harsh for young kids. But if they don't start getting them, their palates won't change. . . . Recently I was on a sort of cleanse and I was just eating vegetables.

Pressure of the White House

SL: How did the cleanse work for you?

MO: The cleanses are good for a short period of time. I can't live my life on a cleanse. But they help me clean out my palate. Because when you start adding things like sugars into your diet, you start craving them. And the more you eat, the more you crave. . . . So maybe I'll do a cleanse for two days. It isn't a way of life, because I like food too much. But it is good to break your mind-set.

SL: I recently interviewed former First Lady Laura Bush and she talked about how when she left the White House, she felt physically lighter, that her burden had been lifted. Are the pressures involved in being First Lady something you're cognizant of?

MO: I think it's a self-protective mechanism not to think about it. If you were to ever stop and think about this stuff, you could be debilitated. Instead, if you approach each day new and fresh, with every experience as something to take in, the time flies. . . . It'll be two years [in the White House] before you know it.

I can imagine that when it's time to step back and reflect, it will feel like a huge relief. But in this moment I'm just trying to get stuff done. I'm focused on trying to move this initiative forward.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2010.

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